The world’s oceans are the lifeblood of all life on planet Earth. And it is widely known the oceans are under attack across a range of environmental issues from climate change leading to warming oceans and acidification to overfishing to widespread pollution in the form of toxic spills and plastics.
While all of Earth’s oceans need protecting, a major area of those waters – the high seas – are often overlooked.
In fact, during the recently held EarthxOcean Conference 2020, Peggy Kalas, director of the High Seas Alliance, said, “Sometimes we say they are the forgotten half of our planet.”
What are the high seas? Kalas offered a series of facts and stats, including:
- The high seas are Earth’s biggest biosphere.
- They make up nearly two-thirds of the oceans and almost half of the surface area of the planet.
- They are full of life with undersea mountain chains and diversity of marine life.
- We know less about the deep sea than the surface of the moon.
- They are beyond national jurisdiction and are a true global commons shared by everyone, but the responsibility of no single nation.
- Only around 1% of the high seas are fully protected.
“Essentially the high seas begin where national oversight of the ocean ends, and therein lies the problem,” said Kalas describing the open ocean as “basically the wild west” with current ocean law focused on the right to exploit marine life rather than protect it. This approach has led to problems such as 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks overexploited or depleted, and an over 100-year span of activities such as pirate fishing has incurring untold damage on the high seas.
The United Nations first negotiated the Convention on the Law of the Sea during the 1970s, but since that time technology has expanded the area of the ocean open to exploitation to depths that simply weren’t possible when that legal framework was crafted. Currently the open seas are governed by a patchwork of authorities with differing priorities such as the International Seabed Authority over seabed mining and the International Maritime Organization over oceanic shipping. This has led to overlapping mandates creating jurisdictional issues as well as gaps in jurisdiction.
Currently, groups and nations worldwide are calling for 30% protection of the high seas by 2030 as a bare minimum to safeguard biodiversity, avoid the collapse of fisheries and bolster the ocean’s resilience to climate change.
To address this, the UN convened the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction with a resolution at the end of 2017. To date it has held three sessions with the fourth scheduled for March 23 to April 3, 2020, postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now expected to be held later this year or sometime in 2021.
Saving the high seas in action
The challenge in protecting the high seas is although it encompasses half of the entire planet, it’s an area most people will never experience firsthand.
“The open ocean – that we now call the high seas – is what connected us (Hawaiians) … but I realize this perspective is not shared by most,” said ‘Aulani Wilhelm, senior vice president, Center for Oceans, Conservation International, during EarthxOcean Conference 2020. “For the most part the high seas are an esoteric notion, something far away from us, which is why for so long we’ve treated it like an endless source that we can take from and take for granted.”
She pointed to one area of the high seas needing immediate protection – mesophotic coral ecosystems found in what is called the “twilight zone” of the ocean. The same coral species found in shallow coastal waters also occur in habitats within 500 feet of the surface in tropical waters. These areas are some of the most vulnerable and most exploited reefs on Earth but are valuable food fisheries and reserves of biodiversity.
One mesophotic coral ecosystem success story is Papahānaumokuākea, the world’s largest and most remote archipelago and the largest contiguous fully-protected conservation area under the U.S. flag. It encompasses 582,578 square miles of the Pacific Ocean and includes the largest coral and sponge found to date.
Papahānaumokuākea may be a high seas success story, but it is only a step to reaching the 30% protection by 2030 goal. As Kalas put it, right now is a perfect storm and transformative time to create the political will to push for multi-lateral treaties and get the public involved in saving the oceans.
Written by: David Kirkpatrick